How the NBA Game Has Changed over the Last Decade

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterAugust 3, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 12: (L-R) LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks look on in Game Six of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 12, 2011 in Miami, Florida. The Mavericks won 105-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A decade ago, George W. Bush was in his first term as president, gas was much cheaper, Nelly was all over the Billboard Hot 100 and the NBA was a different league.

And not just because Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Brad Miller, Steve Francis and even Michael Jordan were still All-Stars, though you might want to let that marinate for a bit.

Player turnover is a fact of life in the NBA, wherein the average career length as of 2010 (according to Weak Side Awareness) was a shade over six years. So, too, are periodic tweaks to the rules.

Over time, though, both factors have contributed heavily to a shift in the way the game of basketball is played at the highest levels.

Size Mattered

Let's go back to that snapshot of the early 2000s, specifically the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons. Both of those campaigns saw the Larry O'Brien Trophy awarded to teams built around dominant big men (Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers in 2002 and Tim Duncan's Spurs in 2003), the Maurice Podoloff MVP trophy given to Tim Duncan and the Rookie of the Year handed out to talented forwards (Pau Gasol in 2002 and Amar'e Stoudemire in 2003).

The 2001-02 All-NBA teams featured no fewer than eight players—Duncan and Shaq on the first team; Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett on the second team; and Jermaine O'Neal, Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo on the third team—capable of playing the center position. That number dipped to seven in 2002-03, when, in an ironic twist of fate, Mutombo was denied a spot among the league's coveted top 15.

Mutombo, though, was one of only four traditional "bigs" on the 2002 Eastern Conference All-Star team, alongside Alonzo Mourning, Jermaine O'Neal and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The West had six of its own—Duncan, Dirk, Garnett, Webber, Elton Brand and Karl Malone—seven if you count Shaq, who had to withdraw on account of an injury.

The East held serve in that respect in 2003, with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Brad Miller joining Jermaine O'Neal. The West's numbers actually dipped from six to five, with Shaq and Yao Ming replacing C-Webb, Brand and the Mailman.

But that 2003 All-Star Game nearly featured the zenith of size in the NBA. At one point, West coach Rick Adelman had Shaq, Yao, KG and Duncan on the floor at the same time and could've gone for the full Seven-Foot Five if he'd put one Dallas Mavericks All-Star (Dirk Nowitzki) on the floor instead of another (Steve Nash).

Now, let's make like Doc Brown and go back to the future...or the present, if you will. The last two seasons have borne witness to two teams (the Mavs in 2011 and the Miami Heat in 2012) winning the title without being built around a traditional low-post presence, and a point guard (Derrick Rose in 2011, Kyrie Irving in 2012) and a point-forward (LeBron James in 2012, Blake Griffin in 2011) garnering the MVP and the Rookie of the Year, respectively.

The 2010-11 All-NBA teams featured seven bigs in all, but only one (Dwight Howard) on the first team. That number dropped to six this past season, and three of them—Griffin, Dirk and Kevin Love—spend some (if not most) of their time on the perimeter.

As far as the All-Star game is concerned, the East had five bigs in 2011 and just three (Howard, Chris Bosh and Roy Hibbert) this past February, while the West sported five in 2011 and six in 2012, though again, Griffin, Love and Dirk were among those representing their conference in Orlando.  

In other words, as much as the NBA likes to say that it's "BIG" today, it was significantly bigger—or rather, more of a traditional big man's league—10 years ago.

Not that the players themselves have necessarily shrunk. According to the NBA, the size of the average player has hovered right around 6'7" and 220 pounds for the last quarter century or so, with Antoine Wright fitting that exact description in 2011 to "earn" distinction as the league's Mr. Average.

Styles, They Come and Go

So what's changed, then? If the players aren't getting any smaller, then why are big men with post moves so rare nowadays when they seemed to be so plentiful just 10 years ago?

Consider that Dirk Nowitzki is the only player 6'10" or taller who's remained relevant among the NBA's elite between the pair of two-year periods examined above. He was an All-Star and an All-NBA performer then and remains one to this day.

All the while, Dirk's game (at least on offense) hasn't changed demonstrably. He's still primarily a sweet-shooting seven-footer who can get looks for himself and demoralize the opposition with his patented one-legged fadeaway jumper on the block.

Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber were both capable of hitting jumpers and handling the ball a bit 10 years ago, but neither would've been considered primarily "perimeter-oriented." On the whole, the player who was 6'8" or taller and could play like a guard was still a rarity in the NBA.

Not so much today, wherein Nowitzki is joined in that regard by the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin, among others.

Over that same stretch, point guards and combo guards have risen to perhaps their most prominent place in the game, at least since the NBA went "modern" in the 1980s.

A quick count of top-notch, franchise-caliber floor generals from the 2011-12 season will yield a lengthy list that, while ignoring injuries, includes Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Ty Lawson, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Ricky Rubio, with Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Jose Calderon, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Mike Conley all figuring into the fringes of the conversation.

Being a guard (or playing like one) seems to be all the rage these days, but why? Why is a game and a league that was, for so long, dominated by giants who controlled the paint now so strongly influenced by those who hover around the perimeter?

The Fabric of the Game

Part of the change can be charged to cultural undercurrents, if you will. As Dwight Howard told Kevin Fixler of playing center in a recent piece for Yahoo! Sports:  

It's not a fun position. It's a very tough position. It's one that a lot of people don't really want to play, because of how physical and tough it is. You have to be the tough guy on the court.

This from the preeminent player at the most important position in the history of basketball, who added:

Nobody really talks about center. Center isn't a flashy position, but it's the centerpiece for the team. Most people don't understand it because all they care about is one thing, and that's points. Scoring doesn't get you titles. Scoring doesn't get you nothing but scoring titles, or, you know, you look good on "SportsCenter."

Indeed, centers don't tend to garner as much praise or exposure as their counterparts on the perimeter. Guards tend to have flashier games and partake in more highlight-reel-worthy plays, if only because they have the ball in their hands more often and are responsible with getting the rock to big men.

On the one hand, that may seem more like an issue of "big babies" starving for attention and/or not wanting to take the pounding that comes with playing down low. On the other hand, it could simply be that because of that disparity in exposure, tall youngsters are less privy to the exploits of post players in comparison to those of the great guards and wings. As Howard put it: 

I always wanted to be a point guard, but then I started to grow, so I played center once I got to the league. I didn't have the opportunity to watch TV, or see any other centers. I had a Magic Johnson VHS, and I watched that every day. I went to guard camps. I knew who Wilt Chamberlain was, but that's because of a toy that I had.

It certainly makes sense that Howard, like any young basketball player, would begin his life on the court as a guard. After all, most people who turn out to be tall enough to play center in the NBA don't reach that height until their high school years, long after they've already learned to pass, dribble and shoot and fallen in love with each skill.

Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon. As Jerry West, The Logo himself, told Fixler:

Who do kids emulate? They don't emulate big players. They emulate smaller people who can dribble the ball through a damn Coke bottle. Those are the things that excite kids.

Why? Because, as kids, those are also the things they're more capable of—not dunking and blocking shots like the great centers—and because those are the players to which young hoop heads are more commonly exposed. And as the prevalence of "glamorous" NBA big men continues to dwindle, so too will the ranks of those who aspire to play the position.

Even Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Fame center in his own right, couldn't ignore the facts, saying, "Everybody wants to be like Michael Jordan." 

To be sure, there are some, like Lakers center Andrew Bynum, who start playing basketball later, when they're already gigantic and thus are more likely to be thrust into the middle.

But would an NBA team today, with the way the game is played, be so quick to designate someone like a young Dwight Howard—with the size of a big man but the skills of a little guy—as a traditional center in the making, especially after the way the Heat went about winning their title against the similarly perimeter-oriented Thunder?

Follow the Rules

The NBA's top two teams have taken advantage of more than just a sea change in grassroots basketball culture, though. The simultaneous decline of big men and rise of perimeter players has also been helped along by changes to the rule book in recent years.

In particular, the loosening of restrictions on zone defenses and the tightening of those governing hand checks and other forms of contact away from the basket have continued to siphon the advantage away from bigs toward guards, just as the widening of the lane, the introduction of the shot clock and the institution of the three-point line have over the course of NBA history.

The influx of international bigs, most notably Dirk, who play like guards has only served to accentuate the shift toward and the popularity of big, versatile players in an ever-changing league.

It makes sense, then, that the true center has become something of a dying breed, and that this shift in the paradigm of NBA basketball has created a more wide-open game as a result. People of ideal center height are few and far between, and with so many of them choosing to play other positions—and with the rules rewarding them for doing so—an unclogging of the middle and residual spreading of the rest of the floor is bound to follow.

Just as we've seen in the NBA over the last decade.

Possibility vs. Necessity

This isn't to say, though, that the traditional center is "dead" or that a team built around one can't win in today's NBA.

Quite the contrary, actually. The rarity of the low-post big man makes the employment of one that much of an advantage.

It's no coincidence that there's been such a feeding frenzy around the league to acquire Dwight Howard amidst his ongoing "Indecision" and that the Orlando Magic have been so reluctant to trade him away. Howard's a once-in-a-decade-type talent at center, and even that interval of time may be putting it mildly. He's consistently one of the two or three most valuable players in the NBA every year because he's such a game-changer—because he's so big (and so good for his size) while everyone else isn't.

In other words, he fills a basketball niche that so few others do these days.

That being said, gone is the notion that a team can't win a title without a true center, whether or not it's one of Howard's caliber. The Heat didn't have one this past spring, instead employing Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony (both power forwards) and even LeBron to man the middle at times on the way to the NBA title.

They'll be favored to defend their crown next season, unless something dramatic comes up in the on-going "Dwightmare" saga, and likely still without the benefit of a true center. As Heat president Pat Riley told the South Florida Sun Sentinel, "We definitely are going to continue to look for somebody in that spot, but unless there's an injury, we really don't need a center."

That's the point, really. No team needs a center anymore if it plays a brand of basketball that takes full advantage of the rules that currently govern the NBA game.

Building a team with a conventional lineup that includes a traditional center remains the most foolproof way to compete for a championship.

But thanks to changes in the game over the last 10 years, it's no longer the only way to win at the highest level in the NBA.


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